Football, Pharma, and Finding China

I’m Paul Walprecht, I grew up in a small village outside of Frankfurt with less than 7000 people. Now I’m in Shanghai, a city of over 24 million people, doing my MBA at CEIBS. Here is my story, one that led me from playing football to working at Bayer and via the cities of the world to Shanghai.

From football to pharma

Having grown up in the German countryside, I always wanted to go out and explore different cultures and countries. I knew that there was much more beyond my home town, places where everyone didn’t know each other and each other’s business. There wasn’t much to do in my hometown, so like a lot of young boys in Germany, I gravitated towards football. The trouble was, by 16 I finally had to admit to myself that I wasn’t skilful enough to make it as a professional, so I swapped sides and became a referee. This experience really kick-started my wanderlust, as I travelled to many cities around Germany to referee matches with young international stars who have since gone on to light up the Bundesliga (Germany’s top football league).

Football put me in touch with many different people coming from various countries and helped me to better understand how differently people could act, think, and behave. But just seeing the football pitches in the surrounding area wasn’t enough, I wanted more. Exploring new countries was one of my major interests, so I found a job where I could do exactly that.

I joined Bayer on their management trainee programme as an internal auditor. In this position, I was responsible for checking and verifying a vast variety of processes, projects, and organisations throughout the entire company. This position also helped me get closer to my personal goal of travelling the world. On average, I travelled 35-45 weeks per year, across five continents and to 20 countries. The highlights back then were being able to spend my weekends in South Africa going on Safari and being a part of the famous Carnival in Brazil. I do, however, have to admit that it is of course nicer to travel places with just your backpack when compared with very stressful business trips where you end up barely seeing anything. Especially after working long hours for days, there is not much more you want to see other than a warm and cosy bed.

Discovering China and CEIBS

Of course, during my many business travels, I naturally encountered China. In addition to a two-day stopover in Beijing, I had a total of four 3-4 week business trips to both Beijing and Shanghai. My first impressions were honestly ones of frustration. The first time I came to Beijing was in the winter of 2016. When I arrived, it was insanely cold and smoggy and everything around me was unfamiliar. I didn’t understand what was going on. The language, the habits, the food; everything was unexpectedly strange to me. We had a project in a small plant in the suburbs of Beijing where I was literally the only foreigner and only a handful of my colleagues could speak English. These four weeks were a real struggle for me because I could barely communicate with anybody and I had the impression that even though they understood what I was saying, they did not really understand what I meant. I felt like a toddler who had to learn everything from scratch again, a major challenge I guess for many foreigners coming to China without fluent Mandarin language skills.

Although my first extensive experience with China had been challenging, I somehow felt that it was the kind of challenge I was looking for. When Bayer offered to sponsor my MBA, I gravitated towards CEIBS, as China was really the first place I had visited where everything seemed different.

My next trip also gave me the confidence I needed to pursue this bold move. I returned to China again in August when the weather was beautiful. I also met with colleagues who were keen to introduce me to China all over again, two of which had graduated from CEIBS in 2016 and 2017. I was able to relate to their experiences when they first arrived in China and the fact that they shared the same struggles as I did. They also gave me advice about how to deal with the kinds of unfamiliar situations one might face. What they helped me with was to gain a basic understanding and access to Chinese culture which I had somehow lacked in the beginning. Ultimately, it is very easy and tempting to just neglect everything unknown and to say that it is strange and to not engage with it. But once I had experienced my real first entry into China, I better understood many things and started to like it a lot.

Lessons from my first two terms at CEIBS

For everybody reading this article here, I have two messages for you: If you are a foreigner and you are considering moving to China or if you just came here a couple of months ago like I did, it is and it always will be a challenging environment. Especially if the country where you come from shares only very limited commonalities with Chinese culture, it is going to be a big challenge and you will likely be frustrated at many stages during your China journey. But I´m convinced once you gain access and an understanding of Chinese culture, your opinion will change. The culture is so rich and diverse and has so much to offer, especially in a city like Shanghai.

If you are Chinese, please do your foreign colleagues a favour and invite them to join you in whatever you like to do. Otherwise, they will struggle and won´t appreciate their time here. I have seen a lot of friends who came to Germany and faced similar issues, but once they were shown around, they had an entirely different view of the place they were living in. One thing I learned throughout refereeing, working, and travelling is that diversity enriches people – you will make new friends, experience new things, and learn to understand different perspectives.

From my first couple of months at CEIBS, I can confirm that it has been the ride I was expecting. Living in a foreign country is never easy and your process of learning and adapting will always continue. Naturally, there have been a couple of ups and downs. In addition, in the first two terms, the workload is quite intense, especially if you want to learn Chinese in between lectures, group work, and networking events.

But during my journey at CEIBS, I have met many very inspiring people, encountered many new challenges, and have already made friends from all over the world, irrespectively of nationality, gender, and age. Fortunately, I was also able to keep up my passion for football. We formed a team with our current batch and we are competing in a league with other CEIBS teams – mainly alumni – and train and play on a regular basis. Besides this, I’ve learnt mainly from my Chinese classmates a lot about basketball, which is something I never really got to play back in Germany, and we now play multiple times per week. These sport activities help me to engage with other people and to get to know them, but also to get refreshed and to generate some distance from the daily routine of schoolwork.

If you asked me why exactly I came to China and what I expected, my answer would be very different form the usual response you might get. I did not come because China has an important relationship with my home country or because it is going to become the number one economy in the world. I did not come because of the industry trends which are being set here and which have resulted in the fact that China is likely years ahead of other countries. I did not come because of CEIBS’ global top 10 ranking for business schools or for its high reputation in Asia. Instead, I came for the challenge – the challenge of living in a country where everything is different from what you have previously been exposed to. China is a country in which I have to question most of the ethics and norms I have been raised with in Western Europe. I am very glad I came to China and I am looking forward to the challenges awaiting me on my journey ahead.